by Doug Evans Jan/2006
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Silvretta, Grosse Seehorn© Doug Evans, Jan 2006
Ski mountaineering or ski touring ? is there a difference ? some claim ski touring is travelling through mountains on skis or skiing on lightweight cross country skis and that ski mountaineering is climbing to summits and skiing back down or skiing with alpine touring bindings. In fact none of these definitions make much sense – the famous Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route, an acknowledged ski mountaineering classic, doesn't include any summits, its also often done by nordic skiers using telemark skis. In fact the two terms are synonymous and this article is about skiing in alpine style terrain regardless of type of gear chosen.
No one in continental Europe would consider going walking in the high mountains in winter, snow shoes or skis are considered essential and although snow shoes might be fun (and as quick going uphill) they can't provide the thrill of sliding through an alpine landscape or dancing down powder clad slopes.
How good a skier do I need to be ?
British mountaineers tend to underestimate the importance of being able to ski downhill. There are plenty of easier tours but being a poor skier limits choices and it can be frustrating to have one weak skier in a group, both for that skier and the rest of the group. Skiing non pisted snow can be very different to the manicured pistes but if you can ski red runs in reasonable style many of the easier classic tours should be feasible – kick turns and traverses can be very useful if conditions are difficult but will slow down the descent. If you can't ski very well consider a cross country skiing trip to somewhere like Norway as an alternative to the Alps.
The Haute Route, Col du Chardonnet© Doug Evans, Jan 2006
Where and when ?
The Alps are the obvious choice, but the Pyrenees or the North American Rockies are just as good and even Scotland can be good on occasion. For a first tour areas such the Silvretta or Vanoise with good huts and relatively safe glaciers would be good choices. In the Alps the ski touring seasons usually starts in December and ends in May or June. Early season crevasses are not filled and non glaciated areas are probably best, March and April are the most popular periods and this is when the largest number of alpine huts are fully open. Later in the year it is still possible to ski on the higher summits such as in the Oberland, Mt Blanc or around Zermatt but early starts are required to get down before the snow turns to slush.
Style – Nordic or Alpine ?
There are distinct styles of skiing, 'nordic' which as the name suggests originated in Norway and 'alpine', developed in the Alps. In the past there have been fierce rivalry between the two camps and even today it can still be the subject of intense debate. The difference is mostly in the way the feet are attached to the ski. Alpine bindings, at least for the downhill, have the feet firmly clamped to the ski allowing maximum control of the ski. For going uphill or crossing flats this is not very practical so alpine bindings for ski mountaineering allow the heel to be released with the boot pivoting at the toe, such bindings are usually known as alpine touring bindings (AT for short) or sometimes as randonée bindings from the french term for ski touring 'ski de randonée'. Nordic skiing, also known as freeheel or telemark, have bindings where the heel is always free and allows the use of telemark turns as well as alpine style parallel and stem turns.
In the past nordic gear tended to be lightweight and difficult to use in steep terrain or difficult snow, modern nordic gear allows near alpine levels of control and either style is suitable for most ski mountaineering and the choice is mostly down to personal preference
What gear do I need ?
Skis -Given the right skills and snow conditions almost any skis could be used but obviously some are better than others. Current fashion is for wide, relatively short skis with 70mm width underfoot being close to the minimum. Choice is a compromise between many factors and skiers mostly interested in steep descents are likely to choose heavier skis than those more interested in covering large distances (vertically and/or horizontally) who will prefer light skis & accept their limitations on the downhill.
Bindings & boots – The first choice is between alpine and nordic
(telemark) and its mostly a question of personnel preference (I prefer
nordic but I started as a cross country skier), alpine touring bindings
and boots are a better option if you also want to climb as telemark boots
have a 'duckbill toe' and are flexible making them poor for climbing
although they can be used with crampons. Alpine bindings can be divided
into the very lightweight Dynafit models (which require compatible
boots) and the rest of which Fritschi is probably the best known brand.
The essential point is that for climbing the heel is free allowing the
skier to 'walk', with alpine touring bindings the heel can be locked
down for the descent while for nordic bindings the heel is always free
(hence the alternative name of 'freeheel skiing').
The author touring in the Haute Ubaye© Doug Evans, Jan 2006
Skins – The key to going uphill is the use of 'skins' stuck to the base of the ski. These used to be made of seal skin (hence the name) but are now made from mohair or nylon, they are attached to the ski by a special glue which never really dries allowing the skin to be removed after the climb and used another time. Skins need reglueing periodically, typically once per season. Ski crampons (also known as Harschisen) attach to the ski or binding and are especially useful on well frozen névé.
Safety gear – An avalanche transceiver, sometimes known as a beacon is essential, it allows you to find colleagues buried by an avalanche and them to find you. Statistics show that chance of survival declines rapidly with time buried so if you wait for a rescue team its probably too late. A shovel is also needed and a probe can be useful. Practise is essential, even with the newer digital models.
If skiing on glaciers it is normal practise in Europe to wear a harness, but keep a rope easily accessible in a rucksac and to carry a selection of pulleys, slings and karabiners for rescuing anyone who falls into a crevasse.
Depending on the terrain, it may be necessary to carry ice ax and crampons – special lightweight versions are available which are tempting as on a typical ski tour they spend most of the time in the rucksac.
Clothes – basically winter climbing clothing is fine, but it can be quite hot skinning uphill, especially in spring. A sunhat is very useful.
Nordic 'freeheel' boots and bindings plus ski crampons and skins© Doug Evans, Jan 2006
Fritschi Freeride Rando bindings
How do I know if the snow is safe ?
One of the biggest dangers in any skiing away from the controlled slopes of a ski resort is the risk of avalanches and unfortunately every year several skiers are killed in the Alps. Entire books can and have been written on the subject and even the professionals can get it wrong, but any one skiing in the mountains should be aware of the risks and develop an understanding of the snowpack;- a hands on course makes a lot of sense. Avalanche forecasts are published for all of the European Alps and for many other areas and should be consulted, a 5 point scale is now more or less universal with '5' being a more or less certainty that avalanches will occur (& that going skiing is a bad idea). There are links to the national avalanche sites for the Alps on the homepage of www.skirando.ch and I'd recommend 'Avalanche Safety' by Tony Daffern and 'A Chance in a Million ? - Scottish Avalanches' by Bob Barton & Blyth Wright as good introductions to the subject. The avalanche forum on www.telemarktips.com is also a good source of information.
Out of print, but maybe still available second hand or in a library is Peter Cliff's “Ski Mountaineering” is still probably the best introduction available in English with a mix of 'how to' and suggested tours. There are many good books in other languages, I'd recommend Eric Delaperrière “Ski de Randonée - des premières traces aux grands raids” for anyone who can read French. Bill O'Connor has published two books of suggested tours which also contain sections on gear and accomodation (Alpine Ski Mountaineering Volume 1: Western Alps; Alpine Ski Mountaineering Volume 2: Eastern Alps). Many maps such as the French IGN 1:25 000 series or the Swiss 1:50 000 show suggested ski routes although as glaciers keep shrinking its worth checking the routes are still safe in glaciated areas. There is a list of ski guide books at my homepage.
Also check out Andy Clifton's Ski Touring page.
Despite its name, www.telemarktips.com covers all aspects of ski mountaineering, although often with a North American bias, www.skirando.ch is much more European. The Eagle Ski Club (www.eagleskiclub.org.uk) is the largest UK based club dedicated to ski mountaineering and their website is worth a visit.
Check out these UK touring and back-country companies Face West, Mountain Spirit and Backcountry UK
These are USA online shops but are invaluable for more information on the gear you need and some do ship to the UK.
Not to be missed is the Black Diamond Equipment website which is a one-stop shop for all things backcounty skiing.
Doug Evans first skied in the forests around Loch Morlich back in 1978 on hired cross country skis when the snow made access to the cliffs difficult and dangerous. Later he started to ski on the hills as well as in the forests and slowly aquired the arts of nordic skiing while falling down many Scottish hills. A postdoc in France in 1992-3 gave him the chance to ski in the Alps, followed by regular return visits during the 1990s as well as visits to ski tour in the Pyrenees and the Canadian Rockies. In 1999 he left a job with Scotttish Natural Heritage in Aviemore for a short secondment to the European Environment Agency in Paris;- he is still there implementing the EU Habitats Directive. Although not so well placed as when in Aviemore for the hills, he still skis regularly in the Alps and Pyrenees.